How to Find the Markers the VA Missed for Military Sexual Trauma

How to Find the Markers the VA Missed for Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma (MST) is widespread, affecting far too many brave men and women in our military and producing untold challenges. Unfortunately, the survivors of MST still face significant difficulties in receiving the VA benefits they deserve.

Most sexual trauma in the military goes unreported, making it difficult for Veterans to obtain compelling evidence later on. Moreover, the sensitive nature of this subject can make it all too easy for compelling proof to go lost, unnoticed, or forgotten about.

For these reasons, the VA looks for hidden “markers” when reviewing military sexual trauma claims. These markers include many sources and types of evidence that you can use to bolster your VA disability benefits claim.

At Berry Law, we take our Veterans and their needs seriously. As a nationwide law firm of Veterans Serving Veterans, we have made it our mission to fight by your side since 1965. Our attorneys are dedicated to aiding our military heroes and their families in increasing their VA ratings, appealing denied claims, explaining their rights and options, and empowering them to make informed decisions.

The VA’s Criteria for MST Claims 

At least 15.7 percent of military personnel experience military sexual trauma at some point during their careers.

According to the National Center for PTSD, MST may include any of the following behaviors: 

  • Forced sexual activities
  • Coercion or pressure to engage in sexual activities, including threats or promises of rewards for cooperation
  • Non-consensual sexual contact or activities, such as while sleeping or intoxicated
  • Non-consensual touching or grabbing, including during hazing experiences
  • Unwanted sexual comments or advances

As a result of identifying the prevalence of MST in Veterans, the VA has made substantial changes over recent decades to its policy in determining the criteria used in identifying military sexual trauma.

In a 2012 hearing before the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs of the Committee of Veterans Affairs, the Committee acknowledged that current policy acknowledges “secondary markers” as proof in these cases, including “counseling reports for PTSD from MST, letters from family members citing behavioral changes, drug and alcohol abuse” and others. However, the acceptance of these evidentiary requirements may vary from regional office to regional office. 

In recent years, sustained Congressional intervention has further expanded the criteria and helped to standardize the procedures involved in processing military sexual trauma claims, ensuring that those who handle them are better equipped to make judgments regarding claimants’ VA ratings and the evidence they present. 

When the VA Misses Markers for MST

As indicated in the previous report, coordinators and regional officers often fail to recognize the evidence that supports military sexual trauma claims. When this happens, you may face a denial or receive a lower rating than you anticipated.

If you’re filing a claim for the first time, you may wonder what circumstantial evidence might create a compelling claim. In some cases, military documentation of the event or secondary to the event may exist and constitute strong evidence of these claims.

Such evidence may include:

  • A report of the incident
  • Requests for expedited transfer to a new duty location
  • Requests for a leave of absence

If no official documentation or reports of the event exist, the VA might look for secondary markers outside of official military records. Some of the markers that the VA might look for include:

External Documentation

Evidence from other institutions, people, and even your own first-hand accounts are often some of the first places you might look for supporting documentation:

  • Records from law enforcement or police reports
  • Records from rape crisis centers, trauma counseling, or other mental health services
  • Pregnancy tests or STD/STI tests taken after the incident
  • Statements from family, roommates, other service members, clergy, or counselors
  • Records from drug and alcohol rehabilitation or treatment centers
  • Journals or diary entries that document the events of the trauma

Relationship Markers

Military sexual trauma can profoundly affect a Veteran and those around them. Family members, spouses, and others close to the Veteran can often serve as great assets in their support for you.

These individuals often see the effects of MST on those who experience it and can provide valuable insight into how and if the claimant experiences: 

  • Unexplained depression, panic attacks, or anxiety
  • Difficulty in personal relationships, including separation or divorce
  • Changes in personality or behavior that negatively impact others
  • Social isolation or distancing

Behavioral Markers

Behavioral changes following a traumatic event are not always easy to identify. However, this does not make them less serious or less valid as evidentiary sources or as symptoms.

These may include: 

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nightmares or flashbacks of the event
  • Self-harm behaviors or suicidal tendencies
  • Substance abuse
  • A decline in work or education performance

Physical Markers for Military Sexual Trauma

Several scientific studies confirm that exposure to military sexual trauma increases the likelihood of several mental and physical conditions. In addition, those who experience MST are several times more likely to screen positive for PTSD.

As such, many VA disability claims for MST are filed as secondary to post-traumatic stress disorder. However, other conditions, like depression, substance dependence, and even cardiovascular disease, can begin with sexual trauma.

If a Veteran developed another condition secondary to MST, they may need evidence supporting this diagnosis and evidence of the link between the two.

Much evidence has linked the experience of military sexual trauma to an increased likelihood of eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

While the public may believe that eating disorders disproportionately affect females, the evidence suggests that males who experience MST are even more likely to develop an eating disorder than their female counterparts.

If the Veteran did or currently suffers from an eating disorder because of MST, the markers that corroborate this may include any number of the above, in addition to criteria commonly used to screen for eating disorders, such as: 

  • Preoccupation around eating
  • Ritual behavior with food, portions, calories, or mealtimes
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Dental problems, such as tooth decay or erosion from vomiting (purging)
  • Reduced immune function
  • Excessive exercise
  • Negative body image
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Digestive problems

A lawyer will notice all evidence, no matter how small, when amassing as much proof as possible for your VA claim.

Lay Evidence and Buddy Statements

The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes witness statements, or lay evidence, as supportive, ancillary evidence for substantiating a VA claim. While these statements cannot replace other types of evidence, they can corroborate a Veteran’s claim.

For example, in the case of military sexual trauma, statements from family, friends, counselors, clergy, employers, and fellow service members (buddy statements) can identify behavioral changes, other symptoms of difficulties, and even accounts of the traumatic event itself, if the Veteran chose to confide such details to these individuals.

Veterans can use Form 21-4138 to submit a statement supporting a claim. For maximum effectiveness, witnesses must provide as much information as possible. Understandably, concerning the experience of military sexual trauma, revealing detailed information about the events may distress a Veteran. 

In many cases, the details provided need not explore the specifics of what happened but rather the effects on the Veteran’s life. For example, a personal reference, such as a family member, may have keen insight into how living with MST has affected the Veteran’s daily life or well-being. A fellow service member may have known about the Veteran’s desire to report the incident, even if the Veteran did not do so at the time.

What if the VA Denies Your MST Claim?

If you find your claim denied despite the evidence you submitted, you are not alone. Certain claims, including those filed for MST, PTSD, and certain mental health conditions, face much higher denial rates than others. However, you may have several options to file an appeal

To get to know more about these options, review our other resources for military sexual trauma and the appeals process. Furthermore, contact an attorney who can review your claim and identify additional sources of evidence to support it.

The Importance of Advocacy 

Military sexual trauma may affect Veterans for years after the initial event. Difficulties in relationships and families, academic and employment pursuits, and even chronic health problems can create many challenges for these individuals and their loved ones. For these reasons, get the most out of your VA benefits to improve your long-term prognosis. 

While the VA offers many additional services to Veterans, including free military sexual trauma care, it cannot offer the advocacy you may need to amend a claim denial or increase your disability rating.

The Veterans disability attorneys at Berry Law can offer you advocacy and support in pursuing maximum benefits. Our dedicated attorneys can help you navigate the system, explain your appeal options, and maximize your rating. 

We recognize the challenges you face and the frustrations you incur when encountering setbacks in your claim approval. Additionally, we firmly believe that championing Veterans’ rights is paramount to creating large-scale change and ensuring that future generations will continue to receive access to care and the benefits they deserve for all they’ve done to serve our country. 
If you have questions about your VA disability claim and how the attorneys at Berry Law can help you, please contact us at (888) 883-2483 for your free consultation and case evaluation. We proudly serve Veterans nationwide and are here to respond to your need for dedicated representation.

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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